[Review] Detachment

Deep in the heart of Queens, NY sits an unidentified public high school that has seen better days. Designated as the school responsible for teaching the area’s most troubled teenagers, the school is staffed by a faculty that have all but given up on trying to make a difference and attended by students who have no plans for their future and respond to authority with verbal and even physical abuse. It’s the sort of environment that helps nurture feelings of hopelessness and despondency and its population has responded in kind.

This is the environment that substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) finds himself in when he accepts a month-long assignment to cover a Junior-level English class. With a Zen-like calmness to him, Henry is driven to help the teenagers under his charge but lurking beneath this demeanor is a man who continually battles the emotional scars from a rough childhood which sends him into brief outbursts of both rage and sadness. As the month-long assignment drudges on, Henry begins to break out of his self-induced shell and starts connecting with the people around him. There’s Meredith (Betty Kaye), a talented and bright artist who’s struggling with constant emotional and verbal abuse both at school and at home. She sees him as sort of a mentor, someone she can finally open up to, who’ll understand her. Fellow teacher Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks) spends her days dealing with angry parents in denial about the nasty behavior of their children, but takes a romantic liking to Henry and the feeling is mutual.

And then there’s Erica (Sami Gayle), a teenage prostitute without a home, her initial interactions with Henry are hostile at best. But Henry sees through the anger masking her pain and ends up taking her in, in order to help her rebuild her life. But no matter how many bright moments there are, no matter how good Henry’s intentions are, the world is still a cruel place.

In case you couldn’t guess, Tony Kaye’s latest film Detachment is not the sort of pick-me-up movie you watch after a bad day. It’s a movie that deals with heavy themes, featuring tortured characters trying to make their way through the sort of situations that would break any normal person. It’s a rough watch but it’s a rewarding one, overcoming its flaws with numerous affective, heartbreaking scenes and a near-transcendent performance from Adrien Brody.

It’s hard to not sound like a gushing quote whore when talking about Brody’s performance, but I have to risk it: he’s simply magnificent as Henry Barthes in every way you can possibly conceive of. And you know within the first few minutes of meeting Henry that Brody is going to nail it out of the park; during his opening monologue, delivered to a faux-documentary crew, he displays everything you need to know about the character in his eyes alone.

Almost equally impressive are Betty Kaye and Sami Gayle, the two teenagers that Henry takes under his wing and connects with. Nepotism can be forgiven if the end result is positive, and Tony Kaye’s casting of his daughter as the downtrodden Meredith is definitely that. Meredith is the most sympathetic of anyone in Detachment, a 17-year-old girl who feels she’s sinking in a world that she feels she doesn’t belong in, and Kaye brings added vulnerability to the role. And when she’s asked to really bring the goods later in a climactic and devestating scene, she does so like a true professional. Gayle, a newcomer to the movie world, also holds her own against Brody as their characters form the central relationship of the movie. The idea itself is a bit hokey (and the plot to at least 5000 independent movies), but they have tremendous father/daughter chemistry together.

Detachment is a movie that wouldn’t need much in terms of a visual style to tell the story, but Tony Kaye infuses his own unique brand of filmmaking. From the wonderful opening credits, which splices in real-life interviews with teachers as well as Brody’s Barthe, Detachment is told in a documentary style and Kaye’s visual style follows suit with close-ups, dutch angles, and quick zooms. The animated interludes, done on a chalkboard, are also a nice touch that help reinforce the themes and character thoughts much like Gaff’s origami did in Blade Runner. His use of 35mm to film the brief experimental flashback clips that slowly reveal Barthe’s childhood trauma add another interesting visual dimension to the proceedings. It goes a bit overboard towards the end, but overall Kaye turns what could have been a blandly shot movie into an interesting one to behold.

As powerful as Detachment is as an overall experience, there are some noticeable flaws in the storytelling. While the movie is ostensibly about Henry, Detachment also briefly gives the viewer glimpses into the lives of the other full-time teachers at the school, like the pill-popping veteran Mr. Seymour (James Caan, being the one of the few sources of humor in an otherwise bleak movie) or the stressed school counselor Dr. Parker (Lucy Liu, who absolutely nails possibly the best scene in the entire movie).

The problem is, with such a short running time, these other characters aren’t given the chance to become fleshed out. Most have one pivotal scene then either fade into the background or never appear again. Even Hendricks’ Ms. Madison is given the short shrift, which takes the wind out of her and Henry’s budding romance. The subplot involving Marcia Gay Harden‘s Principal Carol Dearden could be its own movie and one wishes it was, because her dealings with an administration focused more on property values than teaching are fascinating and enough to support one.

And although it didn’t really bother me in the grand scheme of things, the overall atmosphere and world of Detachment can feel a bit over-the-top at times. When I say this movie is dark, I mean it; nearly nothing good happens for the bulk of its running time. It’s just one miserable and heartbreaking moment after another. Kaye is going gritty and raw here, but there are times when it gets to be too much and it borders on feeling unrealistic.

Detachment is a movie that I found myself loving, warts and all. It’s hard to take at times, and the lack of screentime from supporting characters is disappointing, but Tony Kaye has created an uncompromisingly raw look at how a bleak situation brings out both the best and worst in us while also taking some well-deserved shots at the failing public school system. Brody is jaw dropping, and the rest of the cast excels despite some shortcomings in the storytelling. In a deeply affecting way, Detachment will break your heart and shake you to your core.

Detachment is currently available on VOD and will begin its limited theatrical run on March 16th.